Saturday, August 04, 2007

When Electric Cars Ruled the Road

Imagine driving down a boulevard in New York City in a clean, quiet electric car. You park in front of your favorite department store and plug in your vehicle to the charging station right at the curb. The air smells sweet, without the oily smell of exhaust, and the thrumming of internal combustion engines is replaced by the gentle whir of electric motors and the swoosh of vehicles gliding by like a soft breeze.

The scene isn't from New York City in 2025, but sometime around 1914, when electric cars shared the roadways with their noisy, stinky, gasoline-powered cousins. In this article from the New York Times (registration required), Back to the Future in a 98-Year Old Elecrric Car, it's clear that the proof of concept for electric vehicles was resolved almost a century ago.

At the turn of the 20th century, quiet, smooth, pollution-free electric cars were a common sight on the streets of major American cities. Women especially favored them over steam- and gasoline-powered cars.

In an era in which gasoline-powered automobiles were noisy, smelly, greasy and problematic to start, electric cars, like Jay Leno’s restored 1909 Baker Electric Coupe, represented a form of women’s liberation. Well-dressed society women could simply drive to lunch, to shop, or to visit friends without fear of soiling their gloves, mussing their hair or setting their highly combustible crinoline dresses on fire.

“These were women’s shopping cars,” said Mr. Leno, who is a serious hands-on collector of autos and motorcycles dating from the 1800s to the present. “There was no gas or oil, no fire, no explosions — you just sort of got in and you went. There were thousands of these in New York, from about 1905 to 1915. There were charging stations all over town, so ladies could recharge their cars while they were in the stores.”

Baker Electrics, Detroit Electrics, Rausch & Langs and other similar electric cars were comparatively reliable and easy to drive. Even the wives of legendary car company owners drove electrics.

Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Brougham until the 1930s, using it to visit friends and make her rounds on the family’s Michigan estate. Helen Joy, wife of Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, drove a 1915 Detroit Electric.

Mr. Leno’s Baker stands — and stands is the correct word — more than 7 feet tall. “It looks like a giant phone booth,” he said. Twelve 6-volt batteries are under the front and rear covers, six under each, to power the car’s 72-volt motor.

Even much of the battery technology was worked out in those early days.

The Edison batteries were the result of a research program the inventor conducted at the turn of the century to create lighter, more powerful batteries that would extend the range and speed of electric cars, just as inventors are trying to do today.

Instead of the lead plates and sulfuric acid used in batteries from the mid-19th century on, the Edison batteries used iron and nickelic oxide electrodes, and an alkaline electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. Early tests were promising, but the first production batteries were prone to leaking and electrode failure. Edison closed the factory in 1905 and reworked the batteries, finally resuming production four years later. The effort was obviously effective.

“I have modern lead-acid batteries in the car now, but I can still run the original Edison batteries,” Mr. Leno said. “You can just rinse them out, replace the electrolyte, and they’re ready to go. They still work fine, after almost a hundred years.”

The car’s electric motor, about the size of a watermelon, is visible under the car, driving the rear wheels via an enclosed-chain reduction system and a now-conventional driveshaft and differential.

Are we going backwards or forwards? Something to consider as electric cars struggle to gain a foothold in an industry dominated by petroleum-powered thinking.